by Marlene Olin
He points an index finger in her face. "The house will be a great investment," says Dex. "Every penny we put in we'll get out."
Beatrice looks at him. Blinks. It's Saturday morning. They're sitting in the coffee shop, eating bagels, sipping coffee. A block around the corner is the supermarket. Two blocks over is the dry cleaner. Beatrice could walk the neighborhood blindfolded. A map of every street and avenue is sketched in her brain.
"Sure it'll be inconvenient for a while. " Dex swoops the air with his arm.
It's one of his big gestures. Beatrice knows all the gestures.
"The remodeling," he says. "The workmen."
They've been together fifteen years, married for ten. A running loop of gestures plays in her head. The pointing. The swooping. The camera-ready smile.
But then he reaches over and places his large hand over hers. It's large. Veined. Tanned. A shiver ripples down her spine and for a moment she remembers why she loves him, why she puts up with his narcissism and his obsessions and the twenty times a day he brushes his goddamned teeth.
"You know I'm right, Bitty, aren't I always right about these things?"
She feels her eyelids flutter. A wave of heat courses down her belly. This is how the magic works, thinks Beatrice. How he pulls the fucking bunny out of the hat each and every time.
When they met in college, Dex's mouth was a Rorschach of nicotine stains and mottled teeth. As soon as they had money, before the cars and the furniture and the trips to Cabo, he splurged on a $15,000 grin.
They were sitting in their first apartment. Beatrice knew Dex hated his teeth. He avoided photos. Whenever he spoke, he'd casually bring his fingers to the side of his mouth. Rub his cheek. Tug on a lip. It was a feint, a subtle distraction. Like shoving a card up your sleeve while you're cutting the deck.
"Getting ahead is all about contacts," he told her. "Your face is your calling card. Your face is the key that opens the doors."
At first Dex tried to be an orthopedic surgeon. But his grades were average, his MCATs worse. So instead of medical school, he turned to podiatry. What came easy for some was hard for Dex. For four years, Beatrice read each textbook he was assigned, typed his notes, prompted him for tests. When he graduated, it felt like both of them had earned degrees.
Even when Dex opened up his practice, Beatrice stayed by his side. She answered the phone South Miami Foot and Ankle!, made appointments, filled out charts. On the weekends, she took care of their home and juggled the bills. Thanks to their hard work, money flowed in. One day it occurred to Dex that buying space made a lot more sense than renting. They hired an accountant. Soon they owned one office. Then two.
"A house?" she says. "In a new neighborhood?"
She wants to tell him no. She wants to tell him that she's happy the way things are. Wants to say you know that class I'm auditing at the university? The one I thought I'd be really stupid at? Turns out I understand the stuff. Turns out that my professor reads my papers even though he's not supposed to. Turns out that when I raise my hand to say something he calls on me first.
Dex sits across from her smiling like a salesman. His bright white canines flash like high beams. He sheds charm like a second skin. Beatrice is so distracted that she nearly misses the first text.
She checks her phone. The service uses her number for emergencies. Middle of the night bouts with plantar fasciitis. Neuromas that flare up while you're nine thousand feet above sea level in Crested Butte. Beatrice knows enough medicine to triage the calls. Dex can't be bothered to triage the calls.
But it's not the service. Though the area code is local, it's a number she doesn't recognize. And the message is just three words: The Marriot Marquis.
She glances at her husband. He's talking to no one in particular, the words cascading over her hair, her shoulders, her waist. Then she excuses herself. She walks outside the cafe and dials the number. Instead of a voice answering, it goes straight to a robotic message. The number you are trying to reach, it says, is unavailable at this time.
The next day, like most Sundays, Dex disappears to play golf. Beatrice tackles one chore after another. The bills. The wash. The groceries. She's almost forgotten about the text when she gets another ping. It's the same number. And again, the message is short, to the point, and totally confounding. This time its two words: The Forge.
Every time the phone pings, Beatrice startles. She feels her stomach clench. The hairs on the back of her neck stand straight up. She glances at the call screen thinking it has to be the service why isn't it the service. But it's the same number sending her another text.
The texts show up every day like clockwork. And like a patient going in for a medical procedure, Beatrice wants and doesn't want the truth. She wants to text the person back. She wants to connect the dots, to find the common link, to solve the mystery that grows deeper every day. And yet she's terrified. While once she and Dex spent nearly every moment together, now he simply vanishes into thin air. He's either at the second office across town or looking at properties or going to various sports venues because someone always has an extra ticket and he's everyone's best friend.
For days she punches in a reply-- Who r you? Why r you bothering me? -- only to erase it seconds later. She searches shadows and stares at passersby on the street. It could be anyone really. How hard would it be to get her number? Meanwhile Dex comes home bursting with news about this house and that house, fanning brochures on the dining table. A mini mansion in Key Biscayne. A waterfront palace in Coral Gables.
Finally Beatrice works up the courage to text back. The response comes instantly, as if the person were waiting by the phone the whole time, poised and ready.
Don't be an idiot, Bitty. Don't be a fool.
Beatrice's friends call her Bea. Her mother calls her Beatrice. Only her husband, in their most private moments, calls her Bitty. She wonders whom he's sharing those private moments with.
The Mandarin Oriental.
She has no idea how each day passes. Conversations bubble cartoonlike over in her head. And when she looks at her husband, she sees a stranger, a stranger who's there one minute and gone the next. Gravity becomes nonexistent. When he speaks, the words fade in and fade out. When his hand touches hers, there's no weight to it. He seems ghostlike, wispy, an outline of his former self. Abracadabra! Alakazam! Poof!
Eventually Dex finds his dream house. One night after dinner, while Beatrice is washing the dishes, he delivers the news. "Look, Bitty," he says. His laptop is on the kitchen table. A house the size of a small hotel appears on the screen. "I think we should put in a bid tomorrow. I think we need to act fast."
"But," says Beatrice.
"We can finally start a family," says Dex. "The business is doing great. Two offices. A house. Maybe a third office next year."
Beatrice shuts the faucet and grabs a towel. Then she turns and reaches towards his arm. When her hand touches his skin, she's amazed that there's resistance, surprised her fingers actually stop. She wonders if she could reach inside and grab his heart.
"Then let's celebrate," says Beatrice. "How about dinner tomorrow at Bourbon Steak? I've never been. I hear it's great."
Dex closes the computer. A cloud crosses his face. Beatrice could swear he's levitating an inch above his seat. "Bourbon Steak! It's on the other end of the county? Why would you want to go to Bourbon Steak!"
"I already made the reservation," says Beatrice. "It's in your name. At your table."
She waits for this information to sink in. Then she pushes back her hair and tilts her head. "I don't think you noticed my new earrings, Dex. I got them at Barclays. Charged them to your account. You want to see my Hermes scarf? Or how about the Louis Vuitton purse? They're all charged, sweetheart, to your accounts."
The texting stops. There are Silver Alerts. Amber Alerts. Tornado Alerts. Flood Alerts. Perhaps, thinks Beatrice, there are alerts for trusting wives. Whoever she meets is suspect. The twenty-something- year-old who cuts his hair. The buxom realtor who sold them the house. The new nurse at their third office. Meanwhile she sits in class, reads Sartre and Kierkegaard, enjoys the twenty-four carat designer chains roping her neck. Time passes. While Beatrice realizes that nothing is ever forgiven and forgotten, does it truly matter? Would it make a difference?
For now it's her husband's turn to see ghosts. He tiptoes down corridors, peers into empty rooms, stares into crowds. Waiters that once fawned for his tips ignore him. Store clerks that once begged his attention politely turn their backs.
His new home has lost its allure as well. Wherever he walks, his reflection haunts him. Somewhere inside a man with yellowed teeth, middling credentials, and thinning hair is trying to escape. He's too petrified too look in the mirror. He refuses to gaze at the waters that lap outside his dock.
And at night he sits alone long after Beatrice has gone to bed. Air-conditioners hum. A door slams. Cell phones ping. And he wonders in the darkness why the spotlight has left the stage, why curtains are closing one by one, how a man who had everything can simply vaporize into a puff of smoke.
Marlene Olin's short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in over sixty publications. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award as well as a Best of the Net nominee. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Miami, Marlene attended the University of Michigan. She is a Contributing Editor at Arcadia Magazine.